Re-Hire Marisa Holmes at CUNY TV!
Re-Hire Marisa Holmes at CUNY TV!
by Chris Natoli
Just over a hundred days after Trump’s inauguration, this year’s May Day is unmistakably different from the last. This is especially true at the Professional Staff Congress, which might be financially debilitated by nationwide “right-to-work” before next May Day and where over half the bargaining unit is part of the growing precariat. And this is especially true at CUNY, where students are predominantly working-class and people of color, and over a third are immigrants—categories that will remain in Trump’s crosshairs for the next four years. Given the union’s purported solidarity with its students, its potential to lead a radical struggle uniting student issues with faculty issues with staff issues, and its own threatened existence, one would expect the PSC to use the revitalization of May Day as an opportunity for militant direct action.
Although the gravity of the times is reason enough for militancy in the PSC, a single day of disruptive direct action could also have benefited our union in the long term. Members of the rank-and-file, old and young, know that adjuncts won’t win $7000 per course in the near future without a strike. A May Day action that brushes up against the Taylor Law, which prohibits public-sector strikes in New York State, would be taking a small risk in exchange for a trial run of a real strike. Trust falls like one-day actions are necessary to train rank-and-file members as organizers and build solidarity within our union, thus preparing us for the greater risk of a future strike. Furthermore, joining other unions in the streets—many of which consist of undocumented immigrants taking even bigger risks than breaking the Taylor Law— would build ties across the city and help shift the balance of class forces against capitalists and their cronies in City Hall and Albany.
Yet the PSC’s May Day plans fell far short of militancy. Although alleging to join the call by academics nationwide for a “moratorium on university operations”, which called for “cancel[ing] classes, clos[ing] offices, and postpon[ing] maintenance”, the PSC leadership instead asked instructors with Monday classes to teach special lessons about Trump’s policies. Furthermore, the leadership did little to materially support this “action”: it sent a few emails, distributed flyers at chapter meetings, and created a shared Google Drive folder in mid-April, where only four PSC members uploaded only nineteen readings that the 20,000 instructors at CUNY could use to “teach Trump”. The PSC leadership also called for a contingent at the Foley Square rally on May Day, where bureaucratic unions have gathered on past May Days to separate themselves from immigrant workers and socialist groups at Union Square.
It is perhaps even more disappointing that, despite the gravity and potential of this year’s May Day, the official PSC (in)action was decided without any input from the rank-and-file, from chapters, or even from the Delegate Assembly (the union’s “principal governing body”), nevermind through democratic channels. Presumably, the decision was made by the Executive Council or an even smaller circle orbiting PSC president Barbara Bowen. When the lack of material solidarity with more vulnerable but braver unions, like those consisting of immigrant workers, was criticized from the floor of the April Delegate Assembly meeting, the leadership responded that a contingent at the Foley Square rally constituted solidarity. Given the stubborn centralization of power in the PSC, one shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of political imagination that went into the PSC’s plans.
Rank-and-file activists in the Graduate Center chapter, including many in CUNY Struggle, realized the PSC’s milquetoast plans would only get soggier, so in late March we started planning a different action at the GC within the chapter’s Solidarity Committee. We advertised and held a people’s assembly to collectively decide what the GC chapter’s May Day action could look like, which brought over a dozen chapter members, including five new faces. Notably missing were any members of the New Caucus—despite the fact that their talk of active, dynamic chapters and their pretenses of solidarity, militancy, and progressivism would lead one to think that May Day would be a top priority. After a few weeks of organizing characterized by a consistent lack of material support from the chapter leadership (even the food at planning meetings was provided with non-union funds), we ultimately resolved to organize a walk-out from the GC to the Immigrant Worker Justice march, to circulate a GC-wide petition endorsing the call for an actual moratorium on university operations, and to present these plans at the GC chapter meeting in late April for a vote of formal support.
Unfortunately, the plans devised and worked on by the Solidarity Committee never received formal support. At the chapter meeting, representatives of the Solidarity Committee presented and wrote on a chalkboard a potential resolution that the chapter endorse the moratorium on university operations, urge chapter members to walk out and join the Immigrant Worker Justice march, and call on the GC president to excuse students and faculty from May Day actions. The resolution was tabled until the end of the meeting, following a de facto filibuster by a long series of presentations that could easily have been printed and read on one’s own time. Ten minutes before the meeting was supposed to end, one member involved in May Day planning interrupted the presentations to return to discussing the proposed resolution and eventually vote. Attendees expressed hesitations about the Taylor Law and noted that the chapter cannot endorse a resolution without quorum, which we didn’t meet, so the resolution was edited accordingly: mentions of the GC chapter were replaced and the walk-out was recast as a student strike, which avoids the Taylor Law. The deliberation turned chaotic, and fifteen minutes after the meeting was supposed to end, the chapter chair refused to call a vote and ultimately walked out of the meeting.
In short, the chapter leadership’s response to its own Solidarity Committee’s request that the chapter meeting vote on plans that rank-and-file members had been working on for a month was simply “no”. The watered down resolution could have helped mobilize GC students and strengthen the GC contingent on May Day, in addition to demonstrating that chapters could outpace the progressivism of the union-wide leadership. Furthermore, holding a vote at a chapter meeting, even if it only represents the workers assembled at the chapter meeting, could have set a precedent for bottom-up democratic decision-making—something that, to my knowledge, never happens in any chapter of the PSC. Instead, the opposite precedent was set: attempts at democratic participation that break from the leadership’s prepared remarks and pre-made decisions will continue to face resistance.
Despite these obstructions to democratic decision-making, over a dozen GC students (notably, none in the New Caucus) walked out on May Day and joined the Immigrant Worker Justice rally, meeting up with several more on the subsequent march. Some of us regrouped later in the afternoon at the Union Square demonstration, which—after an initial collision with the police who arrested a few dozen protesters who tried to take the streets—marched south to Foley Square. When we arrived at 7:30, the official PSC contingent had already dissolved, after dumping their expensive signs in the trash. Judging by photos posted later on social media, several dozen PSC members attended the rally at Foley Square, including members of the GC chapter leadership. Although the official contingent was larger than ours farther north, we question the utility of joining large bureaucratic unions at what amounted to a well-financed, musical rally for the reelection of Bill de Blasio, whose thugs were meanwhile arresting nonviolent protesters at Union Square (possibly including some of our own students from the Hunter Internationalist Club). We can now say that the PSC’s recent undemocratic endorsement of de Blasio ended up setting the precedent for the PSC’s May Day plans a few months later.
Nonetheless, the rank-and-file resistance to the New Caucus’s timid incrementalism is growing, not only at the GC. Contingents from BMCC, Hunter, Lehman, and LaGuardia CC, uniting both students and faculty, converged at Union Square, some in tandem with socialist groups like Socialist Alternative, the Internationalist Group, and Democratic Socialists of America. This year’s May Day revealed ever more clearly the capacity and need for two concomitant strategies: first, horizontal organizing and actions without the permission of the PSC leadership and, second, persistent demands for a democratic union, genuine material solidarity with our students and the working class, and a break from electoralism and incrementalism.
Congratulations to NCFI on their victory in the PSC election at the GC. And congratulations to CUNY Struggle candidate Andy Battle, who was elected alternate delegate at Hunter!
CUNY Struggle ran in this election because we wanted to build horizontal rank-and-file power and promote debate and democracy in our union. We consider taking a third of the votes at the GC a respectable showing, and a signal that our message resonated with a significant number of GC workers who reject the idea that there is no alternative to the failed strategy of neoliberal incrementalism which the New Caucus represents. We note, however, that the turnout was dismal: only 306 people cast ballots out of a potential 1,036 eligible voters. We’ve already detailed the anti-democratic effect of mail-in ballots, and we heard from numerous members who did not receive a ballot to their home address on time, even after requesting one from the PSC.
We consider this a win because our goals are not simply to assume power, but to transform the PSC into a different kind of organization–a militant, democratic body that recognizes the pernicious changes sweeping higher education and possesses the scope and imagination required to confront them. In the course of the campaign, the NCFI slate repeatedly and publicly claimed that it supported many of the demands on our platform, and publicly disavowed loyalty to PSC President Barbara Bowen — something we can be sure wouldn’t have happened without CUNY Struggle challenging them in the election.
Now is the time for NFCI to act on this rhetoric… let the reforms begin! For starters, CUNY Struggle members have begun drafting a series of democratic reforms to the PSC structure, the first of which would institute proportional representation in governance and open bargaining, and will be proposed at the May delegate assembly. We look forward to receiving the support of NCFI members on this initiative, along with our alternative delegate, Andy Battle. The NCFI leadership must also follow through on its commitment to hold democratic chapter meetings and institute procedures to that effect. As it stands there is no process in place for deliberation at chapter meetings, as we witnessed first-hand at last week’s GC chapter meeting, when a motion to vote for adopting a member’s proposal degenerated into chaos.
If you voted CUNY Struggle (or tried to, or believe that a challenge to the status quo is necessary), we thank you and we want to hear from you! We don’t expect the New Caucus’s storied history of talking like a social movement while acting like a business union to end anytime soon. And the New Caucus will happily spackel over the cracks that have emerged in their hegemony these last three months, invoking the same tired language of unity in the face of Trump, or whichever excuse comes next. This means we must not let up in building our own independent power inside and outside the PSC, toward the next contract campaign, and beyond.
Longtime CUNY activist Conor Tomás Reed penned the following endorsement of CUNY Struggle. We are honored to have Conor’s support, but dismayed to hear about disenfranchisement throughout the Graduate Center chapter. If you feel you have been disenfranchised in this election, contact the PSC immediately (firstname.lastname@example.org) and then email email@example.com to tell us the story.
I just found out that I can’t vote in The Graduate Center PSC election because of a technicality. For those of you in CUNY Struggle and the New Caucus and Fusion Independents with whom I’ve had the honor to struggle alongside for several years, I’m saddened about this disenfranchisement, but I also know that it symbolizes the inadequacies of “democracy” without a liberation framework. In lieu of a secret mail-in ballot, I wish to publicly vote my support for the CUNY Struggle slate.
We all fought hard to get a Professional Staff Congress/CUNY chapter on our campus, even as PSC Central set up technicality roadblocks to delay it. We all fought hard to authorize a 97% YES strike vote in Spring 2016, even as PSC Central then urged many of us to ratify a woefully uneven contract (which I am still proud my subsequent vote rejected). Within the past few years, many new and continuing GC organizers — on both slates and beyond — have broadened our reach and transformed what a union could do and feel like. We’ve also convinced PSC Central to take some risks and defend its members who are regularly on the frontlines.
While both CUNY Struggle and New Caucus and Fusion Independents have advocated new vibrant approaches to CUNY/NYC movement work, we are at a crossroads and must become more daring. As we face the precipice of authoritarianism, attacks and deportations of the most marginalized, automatic-dues dissolution for what’s left of U.S. unionism, and violent inequalities from schools to communities, even the most fiery-tongued of orthodox labor strategies is insufficient — especially when fused with top-down undemocratic union methods that have kept most of PSC’s membership uninvolved. CUNY Struggle presents an explicit break with various failed PSC models, and importantly, does so within The Graduate Center PSC chapter that is best poised to influence and turn the entire union into a fighting force CUNY-wide.
CUNY Struggle’s victory would no doubt be a contradictory transition moment. Even as CS members are more keenly attuned to the kinds of resistance that our union and university must create to survive and thrive, NCFI members helped to shape our fledgling chapter into existence and built trust with a broad layer of new union participants. Even as CS would possibly face isolation or derision by PSC Central’s New Caucus, our GC chapter would need to stand by our decision to support this organizing alternative. Even as both slates have highlighted each other’s flaws during the election campaigns, we’d need everyone to build upon NCFI’s foundations while embracing CS’s vision to (actually) center adjuncts in our next contract, prepare now to take militant strike actions, and directly connect to broader social struggles. Crucially, we’d need to make top-tier calcified leadership irrelevant by activating the entire PSC base to create a democratic and liberatory union. Leadership in a union matters, but leaders without a genuine rank-and-file movement are just toy generals, no matter what their politics.
From California to Chicago to Seattle, and from Chile to Mexico to Puerto Rico to Quebec to South Africa, we see how education upheavals can precipitate wider social changes — not through charisma or coercion, but in the words of Paulo Freire, through “education as a practice of freedom.” Our position in CUNY is no less strategically profound. I’m eager to continue practicing freedom with my comrades on both slates. Our longtime CUNY movement is worth all of your continued organizing efforts, no matter the election results.
I welcome CUNY Struggle to aptly seize the moment in leading alongside us all in a new movement direction, and I urge The Graduate Center PSC chapter to also vote for a radical grassroots CUNY Struggle.
The following letter about Barbara Bowen’s scandalous “affordable housing” e-mail was sent to the Clarion by our good friend Sam Stein. It echoes sentiments we expressed at the time, and which we reiterated in our recent debate with the New Caucus.
On February 21 and 22, I received emails from our union president, Barbara Bowen, informing me of a contractual opportunity to “participate in a lottery for a small number of below-market rental apartments in Manhattan.” The units are part of Peter Cooper Village, which was recently purchased by the world’s biggest landlord, private equity firm Blackstone. The city gave Blackstone $221 million in tax breaks, loans and more; and in exchange, the owner agreed to keep a small number of apartments stabilized at alarmingly high rents. Apparently, a few of those apartments were set aside for public-sector union members.
A two-bedroom “affordable” apartment for PSC members rents for $3,400 per month. According to the Furman Center’s most recent “State of New York City Housing and Neighborhoods” report, that’s actually higher than the median asking rent in neighborhood. For this two-bedroom apartment to be considered affordable, a PSC member would have to make $136,000 per year. As a graduate student and teacher with one of CUNY’s best funding packages, I make just $25,000. A vanishingly small number of highly paid professors could actually afford this housing, while the vast majority of PSC members struggle to find affordable homes and shelter.
Remind me again why we rushed to endorse Mayor Bill de Blasio?
By Andy Battle
Penny Lewis, a candidate for delegate on the incumbent New Caucus and Fusion Independents (NCFI) slate in the ongoing Graduate Center chapter elections, has penned a piece in which she claims to rebut a series of “lies and half-truths” being circulated about her group’s record and vision. Unfortunately this piece obfuscates more than it reveals. The main thrust of Lewis’s piece is an attempt to distance NCFI from the increasingly-unpopular New Caucus, the group that has controlled the union for the last seventeen years—a period during which funding for CUNY has plummeted, tuition has gone up, conditions have worsened, and the university has in large part replaced ordinary tenured faculty with outrageously low-paid and ultra-vulnerable teachers it calls adjuncts. To foster the impression of independence, Lewis spends a lot of time trying to explain how her group actually doesn’t agree on a lot of crucial issues, but still manages to generate something called a “unity slate.” It is hard to know what to make of these undefined terms and abstract claims, but attention to concrete examples of the NCFI approach in action reveal there is considerably less to this argument than meets the eye.
This vaunted diversity, for instance, counted for very little when it came to closing ranks and advocating that members accept the latest New Caucus contract, which yet again pushed flat-rate raises that expand the yawning gap between a shrinking, privileged minority and a growing sea of highly-exploited contingent workers. Ironically, the dissenting voices in their leadership found an outlet only on the independent CUNY Struggle website. In other words, when it came time to confront an issue with actual stakes, i.e. getting in line behind the central leadership or taking a risk and bucking the trend, the diversity NCFI brags about vanished rather quickly. CUNY Struggle, on the other hand, mounted and led a spirited public campaign against this brutal and unimaginative agreement that sought to hold the leadership accountable for its short-sighted approach—and succeeded in doing so, as responses to our campaign in The Chief and in the pages of Jacobin indicate. We believe that we have played a significant role in fostering not only the kind of spirited democratic culture that is a necessary feature of any successful workers’ organization, but a clear and growing consensus in the PSC that the plight of adjuncts is the central issue facing all faculty today. President Bowen’s recent e-mail, like a lot of the rhetoric NCFI debuted at the recent debate, sounds a lot like what was being published on the CUNY Struggle website over a year ago. But if had been up to the NCFI leadership, that pressure would not exist, since they fear alienating their patrons.
Another difference between the two slates is reflected in their endorsements. It is telling that those who have formally endorsed the CUNY Struggle caucus—including Sonam Singh, a key player in the recently-concluded Barnard struggle that won $10,000 a course for adjuncts—are connected to the grassroots and identified with the most contemporary trends in fighting for academic workers, whereas those who endorse NCFI are professors perched at the absolute highest tier of academic labor at CUNY, who make between eight and ten times what I do as an adjunct, and as far as I can tell are uninvolved in union politics or the academic labor movement at large in any sense beyond the rhetorical. This says a lot about the priorities of the respective caucuses. Overall, to my mind what CUNY Struggle willingly sacrifices in networking and name recognition we more than make up for with connections to the grassroots, straightforward integrity, and willingness to address head-on the basic issues confronting the growing sea of contingent workers in academia, including the scandalous lack of concern evinced by many tenure-track faculty for their colleagues who now teach a majority of the classes at CUNY.
Finally, I was dismayed by Lewis’s characterization of wanting to force a debate about the strategic direction of the union and to remodel it as a workers’ organization committed to direct democracy and direct action as a meaningless “protest vote.” Her characterization of heartfelt and principled political disagreements as “personal attacks” serves to trivialize and stifle the kind of critical approach and demand for accountability our union needs more than ever right now, particularly as we come out of yet another failed attempt on the part of the leadership to influence the budget-making process in Albany through persuasion and moral appeals. CUNY Struggle members have worked for two years now—on a purely volunteer, activist basis, without pay, course releases, or any of the other perks that accrue to those who choose to work within official union channels—to spread our vision of a militant, democratic union run by its members, even as it has made us unpopular with those who prefer that a membership they consider naive and unsavvy not rock the boat. Having embarked on this course and refused to stray from it, we are accustomed at this point to the smug condescension of the congenital insider. But this is not a season for insiders. It is distinctly possible we are nearing a crisis point in American society, in the basic sense of that word—when old paradigms no longer work, are overthrown, and get replaced with something else. The New Caucus has had seventeen years to vindicate its fundamentally cautious, insiders’ approach to bargaining, and during that time, conditions at CUNY and the welfare of its faculty and staff have plummeted. The labor movement as a whole is on its last legs, and without a fundamental reorientation of the kind that CUNY Struggle has consistently advocated, those legs are going to collapse for good. Little tweaks here and there are not going amount to much in the face of the assault we face.
The main issue in this election is whether the fundamental reorientation we need can be accomplished under the aegis of a New Caucus that has thus far resisted it at every opportunity. The current Graduate Center chapter leadership half-perceives this, as reflected in their tortured slate name—a timid attempt at asserting the kind of independence CUNY Struggle has always enjoyed. At Hunter College, where I teach, the New Caucus is engaged in a similar rebranding process, trying to have their cake and eat it too with a hybrid “Hunter Organizes/New Caucus” idea whose meaning remains unstated and unclear. It is not a coincidence that the two chapters where you find the present, unelected leadership suddenly running to the left are precisely the ones where CUNY Struggle members are now mounting formal challenges. In the end, though, there is only one group in the present elections that has from the beginning seen the problem clearly, pointed it out even when it has made them persona non grata in official union circles, and now offers a concrete program to enact the kind of radical transformation in the way we operate that alone offers us a chance to stand up to the assaults on workers and students we face. That group is CUNY Struggle and we humbly but excitedly ask for your support and participation in making this project a reality.
Last night, on the eve of our chapter elections, members of CUNY Struggle debated the Graduate Center’s New Caucus slate. Two distinct visions for the future of the CUNY movement were on display: one bold and daring, another timid and technocratic. Ballots are in the mail this week, and we encourage everyone to cast their ballot for the CUNY Struggle Caucus. But whether we win or lose, CUNY Struggle will continue to push the envelope inside and outside the PSC, building toward the horizontally organized, autonomous mass movement that is our only hope in this moment of unprecedented social crisis.
Watch our debate here. (Note: you need to provide an e-mail address to view this video, but it need not be a real one.)